Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: November, 2016

The Journey not the Arrival matters.

I am five minutes away from my place of work in Prudhoe. This information pops up on my mobile. The phone has more computing power than the first astronauts took to the moon. Without such useful information, I wonder how they ever get there?

There are several problems with this message. Firstly, the route takes me the longer way down the bypass and then up a steep old lonnen that was pedestrianised years ago. Secondly, it directs me to the parish church. Thirdly, I gave up work three years ago.

I do indeed go to Prudhoe most days. I start off at Prudhoe Waterworld for a swim, proceed to the Corner Café for a bacon roll, attend morning prayer at the aforementioned church, pop into the thriving Spetchells Centre where I am a trustee and then move on Ginervas Expresso Bar ( voted North East café of the year) to meet my crony of the day.

Last Friday night, the Christmas lights were switched on in front a large and jolly crowd. A brand new high school building opened in September, a fashionable barbers shop is about to be unveiled and a hotel is in the offing. An ageing mining town is reinventing itself. With 400 new houses underway, dare I mention the word ‘gentrification’?

It is about a mile and a half from my house to the middle of Prudhoe and there at least four ways to get there. I can take a brisk 30 minute walk along the West Road enjoying stunning views north across the Tyne Valley. I can cycle in 15 minutes, allowing for the ascent to the aptly named Halfway pub. I can catch the bus from the corner, have a chat at the bus stop, and still be there in ten mins or I can hop in the car and be there in five. Parking is free.  How do you think I get there?

At the same time those so called enemies of the people had the audacity to rule against the absolute sovereign right to leave European Union, further along the corridor at the High Court another more crushing judgement was handed down. The judges ruled that the U K government had failed, for the second time running, to comply with European regulations on air pollution. I fear it may somehow be my fault for driving into Prudhoe every day.

The judgement gives the government until next July to come up with a convincing plan to bring air pollution within legal limits. The government admitted in court that plans to combat air pollution had been axed by George Osborne, as a cost cutting measure.

Car exhausts are a major and consistent cause of air pollution. The United Kingdom is second only to scooter riding, sports car driving Italians when it comes to nitrogen dioxide emissions. According to Royal College of Physicians, 40,000 lives a year are lost in the United Kingdom through illness exacerbated by air pollution at a cost to the economy and the health service of £20 bn a year. It recommends that the public help by using more active forms of travel.

The uncomfortable truth is that politically, economically and psychologically we are in hock to the motor car. The government has just announced a major investment in road building to deal with congestion that will be familiar to anyone driving south on a Friday afternoon.  The North East is delighted that more cars will be built in Sunderland. Newcastle plans extravagant roundabouts to deal with traffic hold ups and Lord Wolfson announces a £1/4 m prize to anyone who can find clever new ways for cars to get us about more easily.

Diesel is still taxed less than petrol at the pumps even though we now know that petrol is a cleaner fuel. Electric cars are desperately needed but are still impractical. Car manufacturers are allowed to get away with falsifying their emission claims.  Heavy traffic stops children playing out or walking to school. Busy roads keep neighbours indoors to the detriment of community life.

Delhi may be the world’s most polluted city. It was closed down the other day to let the smog clear.  London is not that far behind. Sadiq Khan is getting to grips with a health hazard that may kill more people than smoking. The government does not monitor air pollution effectively and I doubt if anyone even knows the level of air pollution in Prudhoe. But I should clearly leave the car in the garage for my short daily jaunt.

What would Angela Carter make of it?

A last word for now on the election of Donald Tump from the novelist Angela Carter.  I have been reading her newly published biography as my late friend and colleague Carole Howells was confidante and mentor to Angela Carter  – as indeed she was to so many of us. Carole  kept over 1000 letters that Angela wrote to her which are quoted in the biography.

Like Carole, Angela Carter had forthright views. She lived for periods in the United States  during the Reagan years, and  thought “of the United States with awe and sadness, that the country has never, ever quite reneged on the beautiful promise inscribed on the Statute of Liberty…and yet has fucked so much up.”

Published in Newcastle Journal 29th Nov 2016


Is Donald Trump (and Brexit ) the Archduke Ferdinand moment of our time?

Is this an Archduke Ferdinand moment?  Will the election of Donald Trump be seen in history as the point that the world started to fall apart?

No one would have believed  at the time that the assassination of a minor royal  in an obscure  European town would lead to 17 million deaths in a terrible war and the overthrow  of  the Czar by a little known group of fanatics or that the eventual peace settlement would bring about an even greater world war triggered by a demagogue who killed six million Jews in the Holocaust.

In a speculative essay  that takes the long view of history, Tobias Stone ( makes the case that we are  entering a new cycle of bad times and depicts a scenario in which more populist leaders will rise to power, American will retreat, NATO be wound down, the European Union fall apart and Russia over run Eastern Europe. Is this far fetched?

Boris Johnson says that we should give the man a chance and get over our “whingaramas”. Others say that Donald Trump will moderate his views once his takes office. Personally, I take no comfort in his conciliatory statements in the last few days. A demagogue knows how to change his tone to suit the occasion and I cannot conceive that Trump has bullied and lied his way into the White House to go all soft and cuddly now.

It is a time to reaffirm our  values as Angela Merkel has brilliantly done by making her welcome to Donald Trump conditional on his respecting  democracy, freedom, and tolerance. We should follow her example.

It is a time to make a stand. Despite what others may say, I like Dipu Ahad’s audacious suggestion that someone who abuses women, threatens minorities and expels immigrants should not be welcome in Newcastle. If Newcastle took a lead, others would follow.

Even if you put to one side that  the man is an obnoxious pussy grabber who doesn’t pay his taxes, Donald Trump’s  isolationist and protectionist  policies which will change the world order. He will wreck the Paris climate accord on global warming which he calls a “total and very expensive hoax” . He will tear up the deal with Iran on nuclear weapons.  He will bring a trigger happy bravado to the oval office which will make the world a far more unstable place.

The more sober political analysts point out that power in the United States normally changes hands every eight years and that it is now the Republican’s turn. They remind us that we survived the Reagan and Bush presidencies. But Donald Trump really does break the mould and has unleashed a  hysteria that will be hard to contain. Do not be reassured. Do not appease him. This could really be the start of the bad times.

And in our own backyard….

Do not overlook our own Archduke moment on 23rd June. The hysteria that lead Trump supporters to shout “lock her up” is mounting here too.  Gina Miller, who successfully challenged the government over Section 50, is under police protection after a number of threats on her life. Nigel Farage urges us to march on the High Court and the Daily Mail derides the judiciary in a manner that reminds me of the way that Chairman Mao cast out his opponents. One judge goes to the wall for being openly gay and another for being a chum of Tony Blair. It is even more worrying that neither the Lord Chancellor not the Prime Minister steps in to stop the nonsense. Silence only allows greater abuse.

A forceful letter to The Journal last week ( “They shouldn’t remain as MPs”)  adds to the clamour by telling  honourable members  to knuckle down and accept the will of the people as expressed in the referendum or face deselection by their party or defeat at the polls. There is no room for debate.

It is not so clear cut to my mind. Edmund Burke believed that MPs should do their best to respect the wishes of their constituents  but should ultimately  form their own judgement and follow their conscience. He was also sceptical about whether the common man had the knowledge and intelligence to take big political decisions, feared that their anger and passion could be whipped up by demagogues and likely to tyrannise unpopular minorities. Times have surely moved on in the last 250 years.

Where does this leave the up and coming Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit Minister? He argues that Labour must campaign for acceptable terms before triggering Article 50. If the opposition benches are unsuccessful, will they vote against leaving? On the Today programme, Mr Starmer would not be drawn.

Where does it leave my own MP, the decent and hard working Guy Opperman?  He campaigned eloquently to stay but Northumberland voted 55% to leave. Should he respect the wishes of his constituents, be loyal to his party or  true to his beliefs?

The withdrawal of American influence in Europe and the prospect of a Le Pen Presidency in France put a further complexion on the decision to leave Europe to its own devices.  In a parliamentary democracy we have a right to change our mind and an expectation that our politicians will make their best reasoned judgement when it comes to the vote.  The momentum of Archduke moments can only be turned by such brave actions.

Published in Newcastle Journal 15th November 2016

What has the human rights act ever done for you?

A new Prime Minister could expect to have a field day at her first party conference and so Theresa May played to her audience when she said that she would never again “ let those activist left wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave” – the armed forces on active service. The party faithful went wild.

The Prime Minister was referring to the large number of law suits brought against British soldiers for brutality and torture in Iraq. Some were scurrilous claims but the Ministry of Defence still paid out £ 20m to 300 claimants in out of court settlements.

The left wing lawyers probably included the former Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti who had just been elevated to the House of Lords by the Labour Party and the legislation at fault was the Human Rights Act (HRA), passed with all party support in 1998 but now dubbed a Labour initiative and set to be scrapped by the Conservatives any time soon.

The Act protects individual privacy, provides a right to trial, prohibits torture and allows us to seek redress against intrusive and unwarranted action by the public bodies. For a full description visit

It does not help that the Act is underpinned by the European Convention on Human Rights which was masterminded by the Conservative politician, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, after the second world war. It has nothing to do with the European Union but in the current climate is wrongly seen as more interference from Strasbourg.

Liberty had invoked the Human Rights Act to support Des James in obtaining a second inquiry into the death of his 18 year old daughter from rifle shots at Deepcut Barracks. The HRA required the Surrey Police and Ministry of Defence to release documents relating to her case that had been withheld from the family after the initial botched investigation and subsequent inadequate review.

The second inquest earlier this year revealed an appalling tale of bullying and abuse at Deepcut, where young soldiers were not properly supervised and sexual shenanigans were  condoned.  Liberty has now obtained a second inquest into the death of Sean Benton, who apparently committed suicide a few months before Cheryl and many, including former Army chief Lord Dannatt, are calling for a more wide ranging public inquiry to investigate the Army’s shortcomings once and for all.

If you are thinking that HRA has nothing to do with you, recall the case of Jenny Paton   who won her action against Poole Council in 2008 under Human Rights Act after officers   had snooped on her family  to establish whether they really lived in the catchment area of the highly acclaimed Lilliput Primary School.

On other occasions, the provisions of the Act enabled an investigation into the death of Zahid Mubarek who was beaten to death by fellow prisoners and which revealed widespread racism in prisons; an inquiry into the  murder of Naomi Bryant by convicted sex offender Anthony Rice, which showed that institutional shortcomings contributed to her death and a review of the case of the so called “black cab rapist” John Warboys, who raped or assaulted over 200 women which showed the Metropolitan Police had been negligent.

The Human Rights Act has enabled the prosecution of phone hackers, stopped journalists from having to reveal their contacts, protected the rights of the mentally ill and disabled and, along the way, secured the privacy of Naomi Campbell, Sara Cox and Max Mosely.

The Conservative manifesto included a commitment to abolish the Act. David Cameron talked of replacing it with a “British Bill of Rights” but his advisers could not agree how best to do so. The new Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, has repeated the commitment. The government would have difficulty getting a majority in favour of abolition in the Commons and would probably be defeated in the Lords.

So why pursue the idea? Is this a government that wants to avoid scrutiny of its institutions; that will let the vulnerable and the victimised go to the wall and does not want to cut slack to troublesome citizens. Are we going back to the days of cloaks and daggers?

If you only see one film this year..

Thank you Ken Loach and everyone involved in making the film I, Daniel Blake shot in Newcastle. Iain Duncan Smith and others think it is grossly unfair but it had a plausible ring of truth about it to me.  The government may even be admitting as much by reviewing the way that medical assessments are carried out.

The film critic Mark Kermode says the scene in the food bank is the most outstanding few minutes of cinema he has ever seen. I, Daniel Blake may be a swinging critique of the way the benefits system tries to drive people back to work to reduce the benefits bill rather than caring for their needs but it is told in a compassionate way that fully deserved the Palme D’ Or. Geordies come out of it well. The film is still running at Tyneside Cinema, Forum Hexham and other cinemas for a few more days so there is time to make your mind up for yourself. Even if you only see one film this year, take a large hanky and get along down.

Published in Newcastle Journal 1 November 16